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«Oral History Project Endacott Society University of Kansas 1 Saul Stahl B.A., Brooklyn College, Mathematics, 1963 M.A., U.C. at Berkeley, ...»

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Interviewer: Bob Brown

Oral History Project

Endacott Society

University of Kansas


Saul Stahl

B.A., Brooklyn College, Mathematics, 1963

M.A., U.C. at Berkeley, Mathematics, 1963-65, 1968-69

Ph.D., Western Michigan University, Mathematics, 1975

Post Doc, Wright State University, 1975-1977

Service at the University of Kansas

First came to the University of Kansas, 1977

Professor of Mathematics




Interviewer: Bob Brown Q: Okay, this is an oral history interview with Professor Saul Stahl.

A: I think you were going to ask questions.

Q: I will ask questions. I think, Saul, that you have had an interesting and exciting life. Let’s start with the beginning, where you were born and when, your parents?

A: I was born in Antwerp, Belgium. The date was January 23, 1942, not a good time to be born, not in that place anyway.

Q: What were your parents’ occupations?

A: I don’t know about my mother. I don’t remember anything about a job being mentioned. My father was a middleman in the diamond industry.

Q: How long did you stay in Belgium?

A: You have to define stay. I eventually left in 1948. But between ’42 and ’45 I moved around quite a bit. I was hidden with our maid in southern France in Perpignan for part of the time. Part of the time I was in a children’s institute. That’s all the way to ’48. We moved then in ’48 to Israel. There I was again for a time in a children’s institute. My mother placed me there while she was looking for a job. Eventually my father joined us in Israel in ’48. He stayed in the diamond industry, although he did have a minor branch out to tractors, of all things. But that didn’t last very long.

Q: So you were actually hiding early on.

A: Yes, I was hidden from the Germans. My parents themselves, together with a few relatives and friends, organized a mutual “savings” group that moved from place to place all the way until ’45.

Q: When you got to Israel you went to school there.

1 A: Yes, when I got to Israel I went to school. First it was a religious school. But then I got shifted over to the national school, the regular school. That was in the fifth grade, I think. I stayed until I completed three years of high school. Then I came in ’58. We moved to the States. I had a brother. I didn’t mention him. He went through the same hiding history as I did. He came in ’48 and stayed in a Kibbutz for a year and then moved to the Army.

He was drafted, of course. He stayed with the Army for two and a half years. He tried his hand at the diamond industry and absolutely hated it.

He went back to the Air Force and reenlisted. Unfortunately, his plane crashed when he was 23 in ’56. The planes he was flying were mosquito planes. They are wooden planes. The word was that the mosquitoes were crashing at the rate of twice a week.

Q: So your brother was older.

A: Yes, he was eight years older. He was born in Holland. We have quite a colorful history. He was born in Holland. I was born in Belgium. My mother was born in Poland and my father was born in the region disputed by both Hungary and Romania.

Q: After you moved to the United States, you were where?

A: In the States I went to a yeshiva, a Jewish seminary, for one year and finished up my high school diploma. Then I went to Brooklyn College for four years. From Brooklyn College I graduated in ’63. I went to Berkeley and stayed there for two years. I was so sure I was going to flunk the orals at Berkeley that I enlisted in the Peace Corps. I passed the prelims but I went to the Peace Corp anyway. It was time for a break. I stayed in Nepal for nearly three years. I went back to Berkeley in ‘68 and stayed there for another year. But those were the sixties. My first stay at Berkeley was from ’63 to ’65, which coincided with the Free Speech movement. In ’6869 it was the People’s Park. I couldn’t help but get involved. I just got tired of the whole business and went to work for IBM in Endicott, New York, as a systems programmer.

Q: Did you finish a degree?

2 A: I got a master’s from Berkeley for those two years. I passed the prelims. I worked for IBM for three years and it was getting to be kind of old hat. I didn’t really have any motivation to work hard. I mean I worked. I did my job. However one day somebody circulated a problem in geometry about isosceles triangles. The solution was so slick that I said, “That’s really what I want to do.” I was wrong probably, but as far as I was concerned given any problem if you throw enough programmers and money into it, it can be solved. It’s just a question of organization. I’m probably shooting my mouth off here. Anyway, I enjoyed the geometry problem so much that I went back to grad school. I went to Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. In two years I got my Ph.D. I then did two years as a post doc in Wright State University in Fairborne, Ohio. From there I got my final job at KU in 1977. I’ve been here since then.

Q: You finally got settled down.

A: I finally got to settle down, right.

Q: Tell us something about your career here.

A: My understanding of the job was that I was supposed to teach, do mathematical research and produce mathematical research papers, which I did at a sufficient rate to qualify for a full professorship eventually. But along the way I got interested in the history of mathematics. I hate to teach mathematics as, “Here’s chapter one, here’s chapter two, here’s chapter three, here’s chapter four.” I prefer more of an organic approach where chapter two is necessitated by chapter one and chapter three is necessitated by the previous one. There has to be a reason why mathematicians develop the theorem that they do. There was a speaker once in the math department, math education, who defined finite group as multiplication tables whose elements satisfy the requirements: the associative law, the existence of identity, and the existence of inverses.

That’s not true. I mean it may be formally true, but the fact is that Galois, who is credited with inventing group theory, never thought of groups that way. To him a group was a group of permutations. And so I felt it would be better to teach group of permutations first and then go on to theoretical group theory. Doing it the other way is putting the proverbial horse at the 3 wrong end of the cart. Of course I believe this is a better way to produce mathematicians. I have no proof for that but I believe it.

So I developed the materials for junior/senior mathematics. I wrote and published textbooks in modern geometry, modern algebra, real analysis, as well as other branches of mathematics. I wrote books in which, as Poincaré put it, the teaching of mathematical pedagogy, is informed by the history of mathematics. I think that that is appropriate. Of course you can’t teach everything historically because some things are just too difficult.

Q: It would take a very long time.

A: It would take a very long time to get anyplace that you want the graduate students to be. I tried hard to develop syllabi that explained the subject matter with its evolution, and also prepared the students for graduate school. I think I’ve accomplished that. Then of course, what else can I say?

It’s hard to say that it was fun. It wasn’t fun writing it but it was satisfying.

Q: So tell us something about some of your extracurricular activities that you did, folk dancing.

A: Okay. I have two hobbies, so to speak. The first one is dance. I started out in camp. I was a counselor in a camp in upstate New York. There they taught some folk dancing. That’s been about 50 years. But I also got interested in other forms of dance, mainly ballet, which I don’t do any more. I’m too old for that. Also Argentine tango, contradance, and some ballroom dances. Was there anything else in dance? No.

Q: You’ve been doing teaching for a while.

A: Yes, I’ve spent a fair amount of time teaching the basics of the Argentine tango for the last few years. It’s not like I’m THE teacher. We’ve got a group that meets every Monday. A subset of them, about four or five fellows do the teaching. I’m one of those four or five people. So that’s the dance hobby. Then there’s the languages. I mentioned I was born in Belgium. In Belgium, by the age of six I picked up some Flemish or Flam, I 4 think they call it, Dutch, Yiddish, French and some Hebrew. No, not Hebrew, Yiddish. My family spoke Yiddish. Then when I went to Israel at the age of six I forgot most of them and learned Hebrew in depth. So by that time I had exposure to five languages. I kept on going. I took several years of French at school and two years of French and of Russian in college.

Some languages I of course forgot. In the Peace Corps I learned Nepali and some Hindi. Because of my interest in folk dancing I learned Greek. I spent a few months in Greece.

Q: At some stage you learned English.

A: Oh, yes. English is taught beginning in sixth grade in Israel. I think most countries in the world do that. Actually, when I was at IBM, as I said before, I kind of got bored. I therefore took hieroglyphics for one year. I was lucky. There happened to be at Suny Binghamton a professor of ancient history, Dr. Kadish, that was his name. He gave me a year of hieroglyphics.

Q: In your years were there any particular people who influenced you?

A: There is Fred Galvin. I mean I learned a lot of…not exactly math but I learned essentially how to think. Maybe that’s what it is. All I know is that I was a better mathematician as a result of my friendship with Fred Galvin.

Anybody else? I was very impressed by Jack Porter’s ability as a chairman.

I thought he was fabulous. He handled some tricky situations. He’s got a talent.

Q: When did you come to KU again?

A: In ’77.

Q: So things were relatively quiet then.

A: Yes the ‘60s were over by ’77. So I didn’t have any politics to worry about.

That was nice.

–  –  –

A: Well, there have certainly been some famous problems solved, which is very impressive. But that did not affect me. As far as the philosophies of the teaching of mathematics goes, I think they are mostly hogwash. A good teacher is a good teacher, period. Regardless of the fashion, be it “new math” or “manipulatives” or “technology” or whatever. And no amount of dubious educational research will replace the intuitive skills of a good teacher.

I understand the mathematics department is going through convulsions trying to adjust to new demands on calculus students. Are you aware of this?

Q: No, I’m not.

A: They‘re going to go into the full four-four-three paradigm instead of fivefive for calculus. There are going to be all kinds of “improvements” in the style of the KAP program. There are going to be changes in how things are taught and what the relationship is between the student and the GTA and the student and the professor. I don’t know the details. All this has been decided without any evidence of its advisability. It hasn’t been confirmed yet by the administration. But the word is that the administration wants this.

–  –  –

A: The last time the administration came to us and said, “We would like you to

teach calculus n this way,” it was the Larry…:

Q: Larry Sherr.

A: Larry Sherr business.

Q: The School of Business.

A: As far as I’m concerned it was a disaster. It just did not work.

–  –  –

A: No, I just got my information from Judy and Fred.

Q: Judy Roitman and Fred VanVleck.

A: Right.

Q: That was an interesting thing. It seemed to work for him. But it was much too confining for other people, I think.

A: Right. What happens if the slide is for some reason missing or the slide doesn’t work?

Q: For people who weren’t there, his idea was to teach in large lectures and have prepared slides made up for everything.

A: Right.

Q: The instructor had very little flexibility.

A: Right. Nobody’s happy being that constrained.

Q: No. This, of course, was before computers so the slides were set in stone.

A: Right. He was ahead of his time. It didn’t help any.

Q: Did you get involved with the movement towards doing all these different viewpoints of everything where you had to do the theory, application, geometric viewpoint, and programming viewpoint?

A: I’m not sure what you’re talking about. It doesn’t sound like anything I’d be interested in. I pretty much had my own ideas on how to teach things.

Whenever possible I looked up the sources on it to see where the ideas came from. That’s not what I wanted to say. Oh, well, it will come to me later.

–  –  –

A: Correct. That’s true. I once checked it out. Only about 20 percent of my papers were collaborations. The rest of them were all my own stuff.

There’s advantages to that and there are disadvantages to it. I tried collaborating. All the collaborations I had were kind of accidental. For example, I came to my advisor when I was working on my dissertation. I said, “Look, I proved this inequality. My professor said, “Oh, I’ve proven in my dissertation that the reverse inequality also holds.” So that’s what I mean by being an accidental collaboration.

–  –  –

A: It’s not like we set out to work the same problem.

Q: So you worked together this result.

A: Yes, we put them together to get the result and we published it in both our names.

Q: Very good. Let’s see. Is there anything else we should talk about here?

What about professional organizations?

A: No, I was not. The only organizations I was involved in were dance organizations, folk dance and Argentine tango and stuff like that.

Q: Would you speak a little bit about the years you said you were in hiding.

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